Hillary Clinton accused Sen. Bernie Sanders of carrying out an “artful smear” of her record as a progressive as the final Democratic debate before the important New Hampshire primary turned sharply critical and more personal.
Sanders, who represents neighboring Vermont, criticized Clinton as embodying “the establishment” while he represented “ordinary Americans.” Before a live audience Thursday night at the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham, he continued to criticize her for accepting large donations and speaking fees from Wall Street firms.
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But it was Clinton who was far more aggressive now that the Democratic race is down to two candidates. Looking to put the brakes on Sanders’ upstart campaign, she derided him for acting as the “self-proclaimed gatekeeper” of who qualifies as a progressive.
She accused him of trying to misrepresent her record. And she called his promise of free college tuition “unrealistic” and said he would “not level with people” about the financial costs of his plans for the universal health care program.
It was the most strident exchange in a race that features two Democrats whose voting records aren’t all that dissimilar but who are framing the campaign in very different terms.
Sanders is calling for a “political revolution” and saying the race is about who can stand up to Wall Street, the billionaire Koch brothers who bankroll Republican campaigns and big business. “In my view, the business model of Wall Street is fraud. It’s fraud,” Sanders said in a blunt denunciation of the financial industry.
In contrast, Clinton is telling Democrats that she is a “progressive who gets things done” and that Sanders’ promises about college and health care are unrealistic.
The most drama perhaps came when she accused Sanders of insulting her credentials as a progressive.
“Time and time and again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth that really anybody that ever took donations or speaking fees has to be bought,” Clinton said, her voice turning sharper. “And enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly, but you will not ever find that I changed a view or a vote because of a donation” or speaking fees.
But rather than respond with a direct attack on Clinton, Sanders turned back to Wall Street and big corporations. He said their outsized influence and political contributions blocked reforms in finance, election laws and climate change.
“That is what goes on in America,” Sanders said. “In my view, it is undermining democracy.”
When the debate moved the foreign policy, Clinton sought to portray herself as more experienced and a trusted Obama adviser in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. She said a leader had to “be ready on Day One.”
Sanders conceded Clinton’s experience and said: “But experience is not the only point. Judgment is” and noted that he — not Clinton — voted against invading Iraq.
It was the first time the two were the only candidates on the stage. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley dropped out after getting about 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
Clinton narrowly beat Sanders in Iowa, but she trails him by about 20 points in New Hampshire in most polls. As they head toward Tuesday’s vote, he is trying to score a victory that can propel him before the contest moves to stronger states for Clinton: South Carolina and Nevada.
The tone at the debate was indicative of the increased stakes.
The candidates did outline other differences. Clinton said she favored the death penalty for the most “heinous” crimes, citing terrorism; Sanders said: “I just don’t want to see government be part of killing.”
Asked about foreign threats outside of the Middle East, Sanders singled out North Korea while Clinton mentioned Russia.
Asked about using a private email account, Clinton noted that former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell did the same and that Powell called the issue “absurd.”